The principle metaphor for this post is taken from Kathleen Flake from her brilliant essay (and Sunstone presentation) entitled ‘Rendering to the Corporation’. Flake recounts how in the Catholic tradition, resulting from the sacralisation of matter the shape and meaning of the sacraments of Holy Communion shifted. Flake argues ‘what had been a plain table at the center of the Church became an ornate stone altar at the front of it’. Flake uses this metaphor to consider how we can turn tables into altars through the ways that we engage with the Church. I want to move Flake’s illustration from the unintended effects of ecclesiastical discourse into the realm of service and sacrifice.
The notion of sacred meals is a leitmotif throughout scripture. These sacred meals can function as moments of covenant. Further, they illustrate the life-sharing qualities that should permeate our religious communities while suggesting notions of fellowship and inter-dependence. Moreover, I suspect that these sacred meals where intended to be shared at tables rather than at altars. Therefore, I see real value in the way that we are encouraged to take our sacramental experiences out of the chapel and into each other’s homes through various forms of organised service and interaction.
Yet, in this regard, I have observed something in myself which concerns me. I sense that when I meet with or serve another person I can either approach them through love and fellowship or I can approach them through sacrifice. The latter approach (though good) has a tendency to set up unequal positions from which to interact. The unsaid sermon of our interaction preaches that “I am here for someone/thing else (i.e. God) and not for you”. Moreover, it is easy to become proud about our sacrifice (“It was hard for me. I did not want to go home teaching, but I did it because I want to be like Christ – aren’t I a good person”).
Rather I sense that the Lord wants me to meet and serve with others as equals. I think I am expected to serve out of a feeling of love for an individual or family. I believe that when we focus too much on our own actions or sacrifices in such service we begin to turn what should have been a table of mutual fellowship and love into an ornate and elaborate altar of our own sacrifice.
A few weeks ago I sat with someone who had asked to speak to me about a particular challenge they were facing. This was the second time I had spoken to them about this situation in the last few weeks. In our discussion I inadvertently said something that was ill-advised, “we are here, speaking about X again!” As soon as I said that last word I knew it was wrong. Though I tried to explain what I meant, I believe they thought that this word reflected a frustration at my time being wasted because we had already spoken about this problem. In that moment I inadvertently turned a table into an altar.
My point is not that altars are somehow unholy things. Rather, I am trying to present a particular reading of these religious symbols. I am convinced that altars should have a place in our worship because sacrifice is a very real part of our religion. Altars should be found in our hearts and at the feet of God. Yet, I think it wise to remember that God creates altars by his sacrifice for us. I don’t believe that I can create altars; neither through my ‘sacrifices’ to him nor by service to others. Altars are not usually found in people’s homes. Nor should we try and put them there. I hope I can remember to seek fellowship at tables rather than to administer across altars when I visit with the Saints.